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Thinking beyond the law

A new clinic at the University of Utah’s S. J. Quinney School of Law is training students to think beyond the law when it comes to matters of environmental justice.

“A lot of times the law is not the answer,” said Ruhan S. Nagra, an associate professor of law and founding director of the U’s Environmental Justice Clinic. “That’s especially the case in situations of environmental injustice. Our laws are often not equipped to deal with issues that marginalized communities face.”

Law school clinics provide students with opportunities to apply what they are learning in the classroom to real-world scenarios. What sets the Environmental Justice Clinic apart from most other clinics at the U is that students learn how to creatively problem-solve in partnership with affected communities and as part of larger movements for social justice.

For the Environmental Justice Clinic’s inaugural semester in fall 2023, students worked with Indigenous community partners on issues impacting the Navajo Mountain and Red Mesa Chapters of the Navajo Nation as well as the White Mesa community of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Nagra began her clinical training as a teaching fellow at Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. Her background in human rights advocacy and methods informs the Environmental Justice Clinic’s approach.

“One of the key lessons for students to take away from this clinic is how do we engage ethically and effectively with the communities we’re working with?” Nagra said.

Caitlin Imhoff is a third-year law student who participated in the clinic and is continuing her work this semester as an Advanced Clinic student. She says the opportunity to engage in meaningful social justice work while in law school was important to her long-term goals.

“This clinic let me engage in the work I actually want to do,” Imhoff said. “It’s not always filing a lawsuit or going to court. While it does involve the law, it’s a larger work of advocacy. It’s rewarding to know I can do work like this. It’s adding experience, hope, and passion to my law school experience.”

According to Nagra, the bread-and-butter skills students learn in the clinic are fact-finding and fieldwork, and the design and implementation of advocacy strategies that build community power. Because the clinic requires students to work directly with community members, students participate in a two-day, overnight simulation at the beginning of the semester to practice the necessary skills.

“It was a really cool way to make mistakes and learn about the intricacies of fact-finding in a no-consequences type scenario before we actually went to do fieldwork,” said Carter Moore,another third-year law student who participated in the Environmental Justice Clinic.

Over the semester, students worked with community members from the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe on a variety of projects related to uranium, energy development, and water rights. They visited southeastern Utah three times during the semester, including one nine-day trip.

For Moore, the time spent in southeastern Utah was one of the most formative parts of the clinic.

“It was such an eye-opening experience to interact with people who seldom get visitors, let alone people from the legal community who are there purely to listen to them and advance their goals,” he said. “I liked seeing how our work could be useful to others.”

Students met and brainstormed with community members to identify issues of concern and develop strategies to tackle those issues.

“We never begin our community engagement with an agenda of our own; instead, our community partners lay out their priorities and we figure out how to work together in close partnership,” Nagra said.

One of the projects the students worked on involved the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act. Passed by Congress in 2020, this agreement gives the Navajo Nation water use rights for water sources in Utah that are adjacent to or within the boundaries of the Navajo Reservation. Clinic students engaged in extensive fieldwork to learn about Navajo Mountain community members’ past, current, and desired future uses of water and help ensure residents are allocated an equitable share of the water resources set forth in the Settlement Agreement.

“The students have been amazing and they’ve contributed a lot to the effort,” said Meredith Benally of Red Mesa-based community organization C 4 Ever Green. “With the students’ help, we’ve been able to assist more people in filling out water use applications through the state of Utah, as well as providing people with education about the process. The students have been very crucial in the work we do.”

Nagra says the water rights project is an example of how students in her clinic must often think creatively and on their feet. After initially pursuing an approach that did not end up being viable, the students had to shift gears.

“The students rose to the challenge, pivoted, and figured out how to make the best of the situation,” Nagra said. “They ended up doing something that I think is actually much more compelling than the initial approach.”

Opportunities to use a full set of integrated advocacy tools are one reason law school clinics are so important, Nagra says.

“Law school training sometimes constrains student thinking,” Nagra said. “The Environmental Justice Clinic encourages students to unlearn some of that thinking and bring a fresh approach to their work. Students are doing a lot of research and writing, but they’re also interviewing and spending time with affected community members, presenting and facilitating discussions at community meetings, and learning how to use grassroots organizing tactics to challenge environmental injustice.”